In honor of Pvt. Nathan R. Oakes, CSA

150 years ago, my great grandfather, Nathan Richardson Oakes, served as a private in Company D of the distinguished 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Army of Tennessee. He participated in the great Civil War campaigns, including the battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville, and Bentonville. I am writing about his engagements as well as some details about fighting for the Lost Cause. I hope to honor him and commemorate the events and individuals that contributed to making this a renowned unit in the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863

While Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg held his Army of Tennessee in the area around Tullahoma, Tennessee on this date in 1863, on another field in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, near the village of Chancellorsville,  a great battle between the North and the South was taking shape.

When Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker crossed the Rappahannock on this date, he placed his Army of the Potomac on Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s vulnerable flank.  His advance would signal the beginning of the 7-day Battle of Chancellorsville.

Rather than retreat before this sizable Federal force, (130,000 Federals to Lee's 60,000) Lee opted to risk an attack against Hooker while he was still within the thick wilderness. Late the following day, Lee and and his Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson conceived one of the boldest plans of the war. Jackson, with 30,000 Confederates, would follow a circuitous route to the Union right and from there conduct an attack on that exposed flank.

Jackson, having completed his legendary circuit around the enemy, unleashed his men in an overwhelming attack on Hooker's right flank and rear on May 2. His attack stunned the Union XI corps and threatened Hooker’s position, pushing the Northern army back more than 2 miles.

Tragically, the victorious Confederate attack ended with the mortal wounding of Stonewall Jackson, mistakenly fired upon by his own men. Jackson, with 8 other Confederate horsemen were riding forward through the dense woods and thickets on the night of May 2. Returning towards the Confederate lines, his party came under fire from combat weary Confederates. Jackson was struck by 3 different balls. As he was being evacuated, his litter bearers stumbled and dropped the general twice, further worsening his loss of blood. Later that night, Jackson’s left arm was amputated, and he was subsequently evacuated to Guinea Station, where he died of pneumonia eight days later.

On May 3, 1863, the Confederates resumed their offensive and drove Hooker’s larger army back to a new defensive line nearer the fords. Swinging east, Lee then defeated a separate Federal force near Salem Church, just west of Fredericksburg, that had threatened his rear. Lee went to the fight in person to ensure final success on the 4th, then returned to Chancellorsville to mop up Hooker's defeated army. With nowhere else to go, on May 6th, Hooker recrossed the Rappahannock River from where he had come 6 days earlier.

Having been outnumbered more than 2 to 1, Lee's victory at Chancellorsville is widely considered to be his greatest. The campaign had cost him about 13,000 casualties, but his enemy about 18,000. However, none of the losses on either side would resonate as loudly and long as the death of Stonewall Jackson. As Jackson lay dying, Lee sent a message, saying "Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm but I my right." On his death bed, remaining spiritually strong, although he was growing physically weaker, the godly warrior said, "It is the Lord's Day; my wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on Sunday."

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lowrey's Regiment at Wartrace, Tennessee

On this date in 1863, Gen. Hardee, with Cleburne's Division in the vanguard, moved his corps from Tullahoma, Tennessee, 12 miles north to Wartrace, about 20 miles south of Murfresboro. Cleburne will set up his headquarters at Wartrace, with his brigades—including Wood's in which Great Grandfather Oakes is serving—encamped around that village, and guarding the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. Cleburne will use the next 2 months drilling his division and practice marksmanship.

My great grandfather's regimental commander, Col. Mark Lowrey, wrote that until this point in the war there had been little opportunity to drill and train his regiment. But now, he said, "we drilled for several months, and my regiment became very proficient in drill. In an inspection by Gen. Hardee of each regiment of Wood's brigade, drilling separate, my regiment was pronounced by him the best drilled regiment of the brigade, and the regiment was complimented in a general order."

Some of Lowrey's enthusiasm may have been lost on the common soldier. One of Great Grandfather's comrades in his Co. D, Thomas Settle, wrote home (dated 3/27/13): "We are having a very good time now [that] we don't have much drilling to do. We have been having several Gen Reviews and Inspections but they are a mere matter of moon shine now." A few days later, however, Settle did concede in another letter that the drilling had paid off: "We have a much better drilled Army than when we arrived here."

Source: Library of Congress

Sources: Company D Return, March-April; The Third Battalion Mississippi Infantry and the 45th Mississippi Regiment, David Williamson; Mark P. Lowrey Autobiography"Settle Letters," a transcription of which was generously shared with me by descendant Raymond Settle

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The First Battle of Franklin, 1863

The 1863 Battle of Franklin, Tennessee was fought on this date, 150 years ago, between 2 opposing cavalry forces. The 6th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, Great-great Grandfather David Crockett Neal's unit, had a significant role in the action.

The engagement began as a reconnaissance in force led by Confederate cavalry Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn against a Union force commanded by Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger. Van Dorn, with about 6,000 Confederates, advanced northward from Spring Hill along the Columbia pike on this date in 1863, making contact with Federal skirmishers just outside the town of Franklin. Van Dorn’s attack was so weak that when Granger received a false report that nearby Brentwood was under attack, he sent away most of his cavalry thinking that the Confederate general was undertaking a diversion. When the truth became known that there was no threat to Brentwood, Granger decided to attack Van Dorn. However, he soon was surprised to learn that a subordinate, Brig. Gen. David S. Stanley's cavalry brigade had already done so without orders. Stanley had crossed the Harpeth River at Hughes’s Ford, behind the Confederate right rear. His cavalry attacked and captured a Tennessee battery on the Lewisburg Road but lost it when Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest counterattacked, breaking the Federal assault. Stanley’s troopers quickly withdrew across the Big Harpeth River.

This incident in his rear caused Van Dorn to cancel his operations and withdraw to Spring Hill, leaving the Federals in control of the area.

The Federal loss was 10 killed, 23 wounded and 51 taken prisoner. The Confederate casualties were 5 killed, 32 wounded and 33 captured or missing.

Sources: 6th Tennessee Cavalry (unpublished manuscript), John F. Walter; CWSAC Battle Summaries

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

6th Tennessee Cavalry in action at Snow Hill, Tennessee

From late winter through the spring, most of the military action that occurred between the Union and Confederate armies in Middle Tennessee was fought by the cavalries of the 2 forces. While Great Grandfather Oakes's 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment was stationed at Wartrace with the Army of Tennessee encamped around Tullahoma, another ancestor, Great-great Grandfather David Crockett Neal, was serving in the 6th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment nearby.

According to one regimental historian, on this date in 1863, the 6th Tennessee Cavalry saw action at Snow Hill near Woodbury, Tennessee. In a move to go after the Rebel cavalry under Gen. Morgan headquartered at McMinnville, Union Gen. Rosecrans sent Brig. Gen. David Stanley's cavalry, along with an infantry force of 1,500, on a reconnaissance toward Liberty. Col. Richard M. Gano, the senior Confederate in the area, had taken a defensive position on a series of ridges and deep ravines known as Snow Hill. It would have been a good position for the Confederates had there been defensive works or natural cover. As it was, the slopes could not provide adequate protection for his 2 brigades. Union artillery fired on the Rebel cavalry with devastating effect, while its left flank was attacked by enemy troops. Col. Gano was compelled to pull out his command.

Sources: 6th Tennessee Cavalry (unpublished manuscript), John F. Walter; Tullahoma: The 1863 Campaign for the Control of Middle Tennessee, Michael R. Bradley; Cavalry of the Heartland, Edward G. Longacre; Official Records, Vol. 23, Pt. 1

Monday, April 1, 2013

Rosecrans slowly prepares his army

Following the Battle of Murfreesboro/Stones River, December 31 through January 3, Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, commanding the renamed Army of the Cumberland, remained in the Murfreesboro area for nearly 6 months. To counter the Federals, Gen. Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Tennessee, established a fortified line along the Duck River from Shelbyville to Wartrace. On the Confederate right, infantry and artillery detachments guarded Liberty, Hoover's, and Bellbuckle gaps through the mountains. 

Rosecrans's superiors, fearing that Bragg might detach some of his own units to oppose Grant in Mississippi, pressured him throughout the winter and spring to attack the Confederates at Tullahoma. Rosecrans argued that if he attacked Bragg, Bragg would withdraw to Mississippi. Therefore, he reasoned, by not attacking Bragg in Tennessee, he actually was aiding Grant in Mississippi.

Rosecrans will finally yield to Washington's pressure, but not before June 24th, when he will begin moving his troops to begin the Tullahoma Campaign. He will force Bragg to withdraw to Chattanooga.

Source: The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn